Senators press GMA on cheaper drugs’ EO

Posted on July 21, 2009. Filed under: News |

By Aurea Calica (The Philippine Star) Updated July 19, 2009 12:00 AM

MANILA, Philippines – Senators Manuel Roxas II and Francis Escudero are pressing Malacañang to finally come up with maximum retail prices (MRP) on medicine as stated in the Universally Accessible Cheaper and Quality Medicine Act of 2008.

In separate statements, Roxas and Escudero said the people were the ones being disadvantaged for every delay in the implementation of the law.

“Where is the list of the essential medicine that pharmaceutical companies volunteered to sell at lower prices to skirt a presidential directive on price ceilings on medicine?” Roxas asked.

He was reacting to a Palace pronouncement that it was giving drug firms a chance to lower prices on their own or President Arroyo would sign the executive order on MRP for various drugs.

“Where is the list of medicine the people can buy at affordable prices in drug stores?” he added.

Roxas said the deadline for voluntary compliance by pharmaceutical companies with the Cheaper Medicine Law expired yesterday.

Roxas hit the apparent failure of the voluntary compliance deal worked out by Mrs. Arroyo with pharmaceutical companies.

Under that deal, pharmaceutical firms were supposed to submit by yesterday a list of medicine they volunteer to be sold at slashed prices.

But latest reports from Malacañang showed that the pharmaceutical companies did not even include any of the 22 drugs that the health department sought to be placed under price ceilings in the list that volunteered to sell at lower prices.

Roxas has criticized Mrs. Arroyo for favoring voluntary compliance with the Cheaper Medicine Law instead of imposing an MRP.

An EO imposing the price ceiling has been awaiting Mrs. Arroyo’s signature since June 16.

Some of the drugs whose prices will be halved under the EO are the anti-hypertensive Norvasc (to P22.50 from the present P44.50), anti-diabetic Diamicron (P7.35 from P14.75), and the antibiotic Augmentin suspension 60 ml (P179.50 from P359), among others.

Some sectors say these prices are still high as compared to prices in India and that the Arroyo administration is not really serious in bringing down drug prices.

Escudero, for his part, said the delay in the implementation of the maximum ceiling on retail prices of essential medicine would give drug firms a window to rake in profits, which they might have lost if MRP had earlier been imposed by the government.

“The P500 million in discounts allegedly offered by a drug firm may be peanuts compared to the profits earned by the pharmaceutical companies because of the delay in the issuance of the executive order,” he said.

Escudero said this could be the reason why the administration flip-flopped on price control when the law clearly said a maximum ceiling must be imposed on 22 essential medicine.

He said the government’s meeting with officials of drug firms was improper and uncalled for since the law would have to be implemented “whether they like it or not.”

“The issuance of this executive order could have given immediate relief to many of our families who are burdened by health care costs, especially the high cost of essential medicine,” he said.

Escudero said it was lamentable that the President did not think it was urgent enough to sign the executive order before leaving for Egypt.

“To speak about unity among the non-aligned is well and good. But when your country is wracked by three-front rebellion and a widening gap between rich and poor, it smacks of hypocrisy and delusion to the highest degree. This highlights the kind of priorities this administration has and explains the people’s increasing dissatisfaction with her,” he said.

According to a fact sheet of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), the prices of drugs in the country are among the highest in Asia.

A survey of ASEAN countries shows that retail prices of medicine in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand are 40 to 70 percent lower than in the Philippines.

Medicine list submitted

Meanwhile, Malacañang gave assurance that President Arroyo will always keep the welfare of consumers in mind when she makes her decision on the issue of bringing down the prices of medicine next week.

Deputy presidential spokesman Lorelei Fajardo, in an interview over Radyo ng Bayan, said the drug companies have submitted their list of medicine that would be covered by a voluntary price reduction yesterday, the deadline they set for this purpose.

However, she said the announcement about the details of what were submitted yesterday would come out tomorrow through Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.

Fajardo said the government continues to expect the drug companies to cooperate with the efforts of the government to make medicine more affordable to the masses and comply with what is provided for under the Cheaper Medicine Law.

Earlier reports have indicated that the lists submitted by some drug firms did not match what was provided for by the DOH as agreed upon during a meeting between the President and their executives last June 8.

Fajardo said the drug companies would not be allowed to dictate on the government and circumvent the law, which was passed a little over a year ago.

“If this (voluntary compliance) will be acceptable, then fine and good because this (price reduction) will be implemented as soon as possible,” she said.

“But if not, the President will issue the executive order for the reduction in the prices of the 22 medicine,” she added.

Malacañang has emphasized that the President wanted to avoid issuing the executive order placing a price ceiling on certain types of medicine as much as possible.

During the meeting between the President and the drug firms’ executives, Mrs. Arroyo agreed to give the companies 10 days to voluntarily comply with the law by submitting their list of drugs that would enjoy at least a 50 percent reduction in price.

It is only if the President is unsatisfied with the proposals of the firms that she would issue the EO placing price ceilings on these drugs.

The Palace said Mrs. Arroyo agreed to meet with the executives as part of her duty to listen to the concerns and interests of legitimate businesses in the country.

70% discount

In a related development, Duque has reported that aside from the impending 50 percent cut in prices provided under the Cheaper Medicine Law, senior citizens are still entitled to another 20 percent discount.

“The senior citizens discount is covered by a different law, so the 50 percent reduction in prices of essential medicine under maximum drug retail price should be a separate benefit,” he said.

Duque, however, said the issue of giving a total of 70 percent reduction in prices of essential drugs for senior citizens would have to be resolved by legal experts in government and would be clarified in an executive order of President Arroyo to be issued soon.

In a related development, a coalition advocating for the lowering of drug prices in the country has expressed doubt that the MRP or voluntary compliance can pull down prices of essential drugs.

In a statement, the Ayos na Gamot Abot Kayang Presyo (AGAP) coalition said boththe MRP and voluntary compliance schemes are mere palliative solutions.

“Due to their very limited coverage to 21 medicine, the benefits would be restricted to a few who take these medicine listed under Maximum Drug Retail Price or subjected under voluntary compliance,” AGAP convenor Angelito Mendoza said.

Mendoza said high prices of drugs are perpetuated through patents that insulate patented medicine from competition, thus enabling the patent holder pharmaceutical firms to freely impose exorbitant prices and secure the market for their products.

“These efforts are laudable, well-meaning and sincere attempt to bring down the prices of medicine in the country. However, in order to bring down the prices of the patented and off-patent branded medicine for life-threatening illnesses, competition must be introduced and allowed to flourish,” Mendoza said.

A substantial parallel importation of patented essential medicine and importation of off-patent branded essential medicine must be allowed to get the imported medicinal products in the market, he said.

He said a sizeable supply of affordably priced patented essential medicine and off-patent branded ones would lead to fierce competition between the imported medicine and their local counterparts.

This would further drive down the prices of both to the great advantage of public health, he added.

Aside from the short-term solution of making available from importation cheaper yet quality essential medicine in the market, Mendoza said a long-term solution to sustain competition and ensure stability of supply and prices of essential medicine must also be considered.

“This pharma industry’s development strategy is what the governments of India, Pakistan and Thailand pursued, enabling these countries to be self-reliant for their affordable and quality medicine requirements,” he said. – With Mayen Jaymalin and Marvin Sy

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